The first things to greet visitors to the exhibition Every Moment Counts – AIDS and its Feelings at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Oslo are three large oval glass jars filled with pastel powder, beneath two flashing signs making a guessing game out of the statement «Aids is good / business for some» (Aids is Good, Business for Some, 2011/2022). Both works were created by artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset. The titles of the jars, such as Side Effect, No. 2 (Truvada, Isentress) (2015), refer to antiviral drugs that prevent and inhibit HIV infection and its side effects. The pharmaceutical industry is an obvious target here. However, viewers are also given an option to defer this initial urge to identify who is profiting from AIDS.
Every Moment Counts shows two hundred works of art by sixty artists; some of the pieces were created especially for the exhibition, while others are older. The exhibition engages in a direct dialogue with the major group exhibition Theme: AIDS presented at Henie Onstad in 1993. Back then, no effective HIV medicines existed; AZT, for instance, did not become available until 1996. Even so, the disease had already stopped making headlines during the late 1980s due to waning interest, and then-director of Henie Onstad, Per Hovdenakk wanted to use Theme: AIDS to put HIV back on the agenda. The vast majority of the artists featured twenty-nine years ago were based in New York, and their contributions were supplemented by visual material from political rallies, protests, and examples of HIV/AIDS activism. Every Moment Counts has a more international roster of artists. In addition, the forerunner’s overt political agenda and activist materials are nowhere to be seen. By placing Elmgreen & Dragset’s jars in front, the exhibition instead invites us to ask why the threat of HIV still haunts the gay community even though the drugs now available have rendered the virus relatively harmless.
Visitors also encounter Bjarne Melgaard’s Beyond Death, featuring bits of an educational programme the artist presented at the Venice Biennale in 2011. In a video, Melgaard and literary theorist Leo Bersani discuss the sexual practice of barebacking, in which participants consider HIV infection a form of exchange, a mutual bestowing of a gift. Their conversation is interspersed with explicit porn scenes and comical animation effects which give the video a conspiratorial meme-like spin. A couple of display cases show sheets covered in Melgaard’s trademark big-eyed faces alongside scribbles such as “Is aids a new sainthood?” These materials testify to a viral production pace. Melgaard has also signed one of the sheets with the epithet “human terrorist.” Beyond Death asks what the virus can do, what it can be used for. The work incorporates a claim that the organised gay movement has used the virus as a pretext for making homosexuality palatable to polite society, a process in which a normalisation of homosexuality through schemes such as same-sex marriage reflects strategies aimed at minimising the risk of infection. By reinfecting sexuality with elements of physical and social transgression and risk, Melgaard ‘terrorises’ this identity politics from within.
HIV is very much about identifying a host of things: viruses, the infected, high-risk groups, risky behaviours, strangers, others, the anonymous sexual partners. A gay politics based on proud and decent role models is busy expelling such “undesirable” elements. Pride always implies a potential for shame, which can then be dished out to newly infected people who should have known better. But the HIV virus is fraught with a great deal of uncertainty. It is not very contagious and the incubation period is long. The tests currently available do not yield up reliable results until three weeks after possible exposure to infection; the antibody tests used in the past were hampered by even longer waiting times. Given all this, anyone who is sexually active and does not use condoms risks contracting HIV, including those living in presumed monogamous marriages.
A modestly-scaled work addresses this thorny issue: artist collective GANG’s video loop All People with AIDS Are Innocent (1991). The title appears above a TV test card with vertical colour bars displayed on a small TV screen. Such test signals often appear as a result of interruptions to the regular broadcast. Here, the simple statement, “All people with AIDS are innocent,” can also represent a glitch disrupting conventional assumptions about who HIV-positive people are and how they were infected. Drawing on television’s wide public reach, the video raises the AIDS theme from the individual level to become a matter of universal human relevance.
Contrary to the investment in role models found in pride politics, large parts of the exhibition propose a kind of dilution of gay identity. This helps foreground how HIV/AIDS is everyone’s problem. Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s photographs often contain masks and create staged situations in which an ‘original’ identity seemingly becomes lost in a tangle of visual references. In Untitled (1987–88), a figure takes a tomato to his mouth. On his head, he wears a floral arrangement which, alongside the sepia colours of the photograph, point to Caravaggio’s paintings of Bacchus. The figure almost merges with the background, but a light which shares some of the divine nature of Caravaggio’s illumination falls on his white teeth, giving them a sheen reminiscent of toothpaste commercials. His eyes are covered by a sleeping mask, and the hand holding the tomato is clad in a delicate, black leather glove. These commercial elements are offset by the references to religion and painting, making the photograph an amalgam of images that seem familiar, yet evade specificity. The figure resists identification, making it difficult to mobilise for political purposes.
Fin Serck-Hanssen shows a series of fourteen close-up portraits – including both women and men – taken against a dark red background in a photo studio (Theme: AIDS, 1993). The staged nature of the situation is revealed by the subjects’ eyes, which reflect the light from two studio lamps. The bright, frontal light decreases shadows in the photographs, making the faces flat and expressionless. Some have a red rash, many do not. The large formats (110 x 86 cm) bring the faces up close, intrusively so, cutting across the boundaries of comfortable intimacy. Thus the distance needed to keep a face separate and distinct before your eyes disappears, and the social functions of the face as an interface for communication and for signifying identity begin to falter and break down.
First presented at the exhibition Theme: AIDS, Serck-Hanssen’s fourteen photographs are often described as portraits of HIV-positive people. Yet there is little in the pictures themselves that merits the attribution of any specific medical status to those photographed. The faces must be viewed from a distance. They require us to curb our impulse to identify, to collapse the distance between the person and the photograph, between image and content. A consolidation of homosexual identity, which involved associating it with certain types and characteristics, was perhaps necessary in order to achieve political results in the early stages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But if we are to believe Melgaard’s project, the attempted purge of homosexuality by pride politics has made HIV/AIDS an incomprehensible spectre that continues to haunt gay identity. Thus, we may ask ourselves: Who benefits from such a politics?
The article has been translated from Norwegian.